James continues to show unmatched excellence as Lakers reach Finals

The best team won and LeBron James made sure of it.

With Anthony Davis limping on a sore ankle and the Denver Nuggets hanging around, James helped the favoured Los Angeles Lakers put the hammer down on the Denver Nuggets in the fourth quarter to punch a ticket to the Finals, awaiting either the Boston Celtics or Miami Heat.

James engineered a final surge that finally broke open a game they largely controlled but couldn’t close. He finished with 38 points — 16 in the fourth quarter — 16 rebounds and 13 assists and while Davis had 27 points. James’ personal 9-0 run late fourth punctuated by a triple with 1:57 put L.A. up 12 and put the series away in five games with a 117-107 win.

The Nuggets were hampered as Nikola Jokic was in foul trouble for most of the night and he was on the floor for just 29 minutes as a result. That allowed the Lakers to send two defenders at Jamal Murray, who was playing with what he later revealed as a bone bruise in his knee, that limited him to 19 points on 7-of-17 shooting with five turnovers.

Here are some takeaways from this series-clinching win by the Lakers.

Nuggets’ head home after remarkable run

It’s been a remarkable run for Denver, but it was too much to expect the darlings of the bubble to come back from down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series a third-straight time. Doing it twice was already unprecedented and doing it a third time wasn’t to be — not against a club as good as the Lakers.

But going forward the question will be how much of what happened in the bubble will translate if and when life gets back to normal. Are the Nuggets the next power in the Western Conference and a perennial contender? Or were they the beneficiary of a unique set of circumstances?

Murray is a case in point: Heading into Game 5 he’d put together a stretch of basketball that was almost unimaginable based on what had come before.

The past two seasons he’s shot 35.8 per cent from three on 5.5 attempts a game — almost exactly the league average conversion rate and a level that didn’t really jibe with his reputation as an elite shooter and shot creator.

In the playoffs, Murray has been the player the Nuggets have been betting he can turn into. Through the Nuggets’ first 18 playoff games he was averaging 46.6 per cent from deep on 7.4 attempts a game. His usage rate increased — along with his playoff-leading minutes — but his efficiency did, too, with his TS% jumping from .559 in the regular season (where league average was .565) to .633 in the playoffs, not far off what Steph Curry put up when he won his first MVP award in 2015.

Will Murray use this playoff run as a launching pad to all-NBA status? The Nuggets have to hope so as the first year of his five-year $170-million contract extension kicks in next season.

Similarly, Jokic has played some of his best basketball after returning from the hiatus having lost significant weight and keeping it off in the bubble. Will he maintain that in the uncertain off-season to come? Or will he come back as heavy and sluggish as he did at the start of this season when he shot 23 per cent from three in October and November and was an oversized shadow of the slimmed-down player who has dominated in all facets during the playoffs.

The Nuggets have upside — Murray was 22 when this season started, Jokic was 24, Gary Harris and Jerami Grant 25. Michael Porter, Jr. was 21.

But Denver’s next step is doing all of is again and then some. They’ve had a Cinderella playoff run, now they have to find a way to stay at the ball past midnight.

LeBron returns to Finals

James is in his 17th NBA season and is set to compete in his 10th Finals. The way he and Davis are rolling, this could be the start of a new streak of Finals for James, too.

I don’t think anyone in NBA history can match James’ combination of consistency, longevity and excellence. Michael Jordan only made six Finals. James is now tied with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 10 Finals appearances. The only players with more are Bill Russell (12) and Sam Jones (11) who racked them up with the Boston Celtics dynasty that ruled the NBA in the 1960’s when there were generally either eight or nine teams in the league.

Put another way, since James made his first Finals in 2007, his teams have been in the Finals in 10 of the last 13 seasons.

And it’s not like James is just hanging on. It looks like he’s just getting warmed up. Buoyed by having a teammate the quality of Davis at his side and a chance at his fourth ring in his grasp, James showed he was in no mood to have the series extended. He set the tone for the Lakers as he put up 16 points, seven rebounds and six assists in the first half alone.

He’s lost no steps at age 35 but keeps stalking titles and not-so-distant recognition as the greatest player who ever lived.

Lakers getting help from surprising places

The Lakers are widely and mostly correctly known as a team with two of the three or four best players in the NBA and some other guys. And while their championship ambitions are being driven by Davis and James, they are getting help from throughout their lineup.

Alex Caruso has transformed himself from a borderline mascot — the patron saint of all jersey-wearing, headband sporting wannabes at low-level pick-up runs across the nation — to an important Lakers success story: the undrafted free agent who has earned James’ trust with his hustle, defensive chops and willingness to stir the pot.

Given the salary owed James and Davis, getting good minutes from players like Caruso, playing for the veteran minimum, is a boon.

Caruso was part of a remarkable performance by James and Davis’ supporting cast in Game 5. He was a perfect 5-of-5 in the first half while Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma combined to go 9-of-16 as Lakers shot 54.5 per cent from the floor as a team. James and Davis may have accounted for nearly 50 per cent of the Lakers’ 113-plus points a game so far in the playoffs but they need help if they are going to win their first title of the LeBron-AD era.

Three rounds in, they are seeing signs that they’ll get it.

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Lakers should be rested for Finals

One of the secrets of James’ success is that his teams tend to take care of business early: they rarely get pressed en route to the Finals and thus arrive there fresh and healthy.

This marks the 19th time out of 27 first-, second- or third-round playoffs series a James team has advanced without having to play six or seven games.

They will get at least one extra day rest even if Miami eliminates Boston in six games on Sunday — the earliest the Finals start will be Wednesday.

If Miami and Boston need a seventh game, the start of the Finals might get pushed back at least until Friday, Oct. 2 or even Saturday, Oct. 3. That’s a lot of time to recover and prepare. In that scenario, advantage James and advantage Lakers.

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